While southern Maine has classic beach towns where the smell of salt air mixes with coconut oil and taffy, much of the rest of the Maine coast is unruly and wild. In parts it seems to share more in common with Alaska—you can see bald eagles soaring above and whales breaching below. In between these two archetypes, you’ll find remote coves perfect for a rowboat jaunt and isolated offshore islands accessible only by sea kayak.
The best places for coastal adventure are often not the most obvious places—those tend to be crowded and more developed. You’ll need to do a bit of homework to find the real treasures. A growing number of specialized guidebooks and outfitters can help point visitors in the right direction; some of the best are mentioned below.
Keep in mind that no other New England state offers as much outdoor recreational diversity as Maine. Bring your mountain bike, hiking boots, sea kayak, canoe, fishing rod, and/or snowmobile—there’ll be plenty for you to do here.
If your outdoor skills are rusty or nonexistent, brush up at the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools (tel. 888/615-9979), which offers a series of lectures and workshops that run anywhere from 2 hours to 3 days. Classes are offered at various locations around the state, covering a whole range of subjects, including fly-fishing, outdoor photography, and first aid in the wilderness. L.L.Bean also hosts periodic (and popular) canoeing, sea-kayaking, and skiing festivals that bring together instructors, lecturers, and equipment vendors for 2 or 3 days of learning and outdoor diversion. Call for a brochure, or check the L.L.Bean website for a schedule.
BEACHES: Swimming at Maine's ocean beaches is for the hardy. The Gulf Stream, which prods warm waters south toward the Cape Cod shores, veers toward Iceland south of Maine and leaves the state's 5,500-mile coastline washed by a brisk Nova Scotia current, an offshoot of the arctic Labrador current. During summer, water temperatures along the south coast may top 60°F (16°C) during an especially warm spell where water is shallow, but it's usually cooler than that. Northeast of Portland a handful of fine beaches await—including popular Reid State Park and Popham Beach State Park—but rocky coast defines this territory for the most part. Maine's best beaches are found mostly between the New Hampshire border and Portland.
The southern beaches are beautiful but rarely isolated. Summer homes occupy the low dunes in most areas; mid-rise condos give Old Orchard Beach a mini-Miami air. Some of the best swimming beaches in the region are at Ogunquit, which boasts a 3-mile-long sandy strand (some of which has a mildly remote character), and Long Sands Beach and Short Sands Beach at York. Long Sands has great views of the sea and a nearby lighthouse plus great walking at low tide (at high tide, the sand disappears completely), while Short Sands has a festive, carnival atmosphere. Both lie right on Route 1A. There are also a number of fine beaches in the greater Portland area; for a primer on the very best.
If you love swimming but aren't especially keen on shivering, head inland to the sandy beaches at Maine's wonderful lakes, where the water is tepid by comparison. A number of state and municipal parks offer access. Among the most accessible to the coast is Sebago Lake State Park (tel. 207/693-6231), about 20 miles northwest of Portland; a small admission fee is charged.
BIKING: In southern Maine, Route 103 and Route 1A offer pleasant scenery for bikers. Otherwise, I recommend bringing your bike to the bigger islands for car-free cruising. In Casco Bay, rustic Chebeague Island offers a pleasantly wooded excursion (the path cuts through forests to the sea), while more populous Peaks Island has a few cafes, more culture, and the advantage of a bicycle-rental shop near the ferry dock. Both are flat, and both are conveniently connected to Portland by Casco Bay Lines ferries. (Peaks is a much shorter ferry ride, if time matters.)
Serious mountain biking is also available in parts of coastal Maine, for those who like to get technical on two wheels. Your best bet is to consult area bike shops for the best trails, which are typically a matter of local knowledge.
The Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) publishes a directory of more than 30 popular bike trips around the state; log on to www.exploremaine.org/bike to search by region, distance, and difficulty and peruse maps and mile-by-mile guides. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine also keeps an exhuastive list of “Where to Ride” resources at www.bikemaine.org. (Pictured below: A cyclist on Cadillac Mountain Road in Acadia National Park)
BIRDING: Birders from southern and inland states should lengthen their life lists along the Maine coast, which attracts migrating birds cruising the Atlantic flyway (there are warblers galore in spring) and boasts populations of numerous native shorebirds, such as plovers (including the threatened piping plover), terns, whimbrels, sandpipers, and dunlins. Gulls and terns are frequently seen; you'll see a surfeit of herring and great black-backed gull, along with the common tern. Less frequently seen are Bonaparte's gull, the laughing gull, the jaeger, and the arctic tern. Check in with the Maine Rare Bird Alert Facebook group for news of recent sightings.
CAMPING: For information about state parks, many of which offer camping, contact the Bureau of Parks and Lands (tel. 800/332-1501 or 207/287-3821). To make camping reservations at most state park campgrounds, click on the link in the previous sentence or use the phone numbers we've just listed.
Maine also has more than 200 private campgrounds spread throughout the state, many offering full hookups for RVs. For a guide to the private campgrounds, contact the Maine Campground Owners Association (tel. 207/782-5874). Campsites get booked quickly for summer weekends, get reservations well ahead.
CANOEING: For many outdoors enthusiasts in the Northeast, Maine is very alluring to serious paddlers. In fact, you can’t travel very far in Maine without stumbling upon a great canoe trip. The state’s best canoeing tends to be far inland and deep in the woods, true, but day paddlers can still find good trips at several lakes along the coast or in some of the protected bays. Two excellent sources of detailed canoeing information are the AMC River Guide: Maine and Quiet Water Canoe Guide: Maine, both published by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
FISHING: Anglers from all over the Northeast indulge their grand obsession on Maine's 6,000 lakes and ponds and its countless miles of rivers and streams. And deep-sea-fishing charters are available at many of the harbors along the Maine coast, with options ranging from inshore fishing expeditions for stripers and bluefish to offshore voyages in search of shark, cod, and pollock. Prices might typically range from $40 per person for day trips to $900 to charter an offshore boat for the day. Visitor information centers and chambers of commerce listed in this guide will be able to match you up with the right boat to meet your needs.
GOLFING: Many of Maine coast's best courses are private, but a few of these gems are open to the public. Kennebunkport's Cape Arundel Golf Club (; tel. 207/967-3494) was a favorite of a certain ex-president. Other courses I like along the coast—nearly all of them wafted by sea breezes—include Cape Neddick Country Club in Ogunquit (tel. 207/361-2011), the Kebo Valley Golf Club in Bar Harbor (tel. 207/288-3000), the Webhannet Golf Club in Kennebunk Beach (tel. 207/967-2061), and the Riverside Golf Course in Portland (tel. 207/797-3524). But the best public course on the whole coast of Maine might be the Samoset Resort Golf Club in Rockport (tel. 207/594-1431): several holes run right alongside the Atlantic and past a mini-lighthouse. It's as scenic as golf gets.
HIKING: Southern Maine's walks are not hikes but rather less-demanding strolls; many of these are a matter of local knowledge. Two fine pathways skirt the water in York, and even in Portland you can saunter on well-maintained (and heavily used) recreational pathways along about 5 miles of tidal waters.
More serious hiking, however, is available as you get further north. Camden Hills State Park (pictured below) has some 30 miles of hiking trails, including a 1000-foot climb to the ocean vistas atop Mount Megunticook. Acadia National Park is a day-hiker’s paradise, with trails like the Dorr Ladder Trail that ascend stone steps and ladders anchored to granite; mellower, but no less scenic shorefront footpaths, like the one around Jordan Pond; and breathtaking ridgewalks, like the trail over Acadia Mountain. Serious backpackers hoping to tent it for a night or two will need to look inland—Baxter State Park in the Maine north woods is their Shangri-La, with 200 miles of backcountry trails crisscrossing the closest thing New England has to wilderness. An excellent resource for searching hiking trails by location and difficulty is www.mainetrailfinder.com.
SEA KAYAKING: Sea kayakers nationwide migrate to Maine for world-class sea kayaking. Thousands of miles of deeply indented coastline and thousands of offshore islands have created a wondrous kayaker's playground. Paddlers can explore protected estuaries far from the surf or test their skills and determination with excursions across choppy, open seas to islands far offshore. It's a sport that can be extremely dangerous (when weather shifts, the seas can turn on you in a matter of minutes), but can yield plenty of returns with the proper equipment and skills.
The nation's first long-distance water trail, the Maine Island Trail, was created here in 1987. This 325-mile waterway winds along the coast from Portland to Machias, incorporating some 200 state and privately owned islands (and mainland sites) on its route. Members of the Maine Island Trail Association, a private nonprofit group, help maintain and monitor the islands and in turn are granted permission to visit and camp on them as long as they follow certain restrictions (for example, no visiting designated islands during seabird nesting season). The association seeks to encourage low-impact, responsible use of these natural treasures, and joining is a good idea if you'll be doing some kayaking. The MITA guidebook, published annually, provides descriptions of all the islands in the network and is free with association membership (note that the guide is available only to members). For membership details, contact the Maine Island Trail Association (tel. 207/761-8225).
The islands and protected bays around Portland make for great kayaking, as do the cliffs, parks, and beaches just south of the city—though surf can be rough at times. Make sure you're experienced enough to handle it.
For novices, a number of kayak outfitters take guided excursions ranging from an afternoon to a week. Outfitters include the Maine Island Kayak Co. on Peaks Island (tel. 207/766-2373) in the Portland area and Maine Sport Outfitters, located on Route 1 in Rockport (tel. 207/236-7120).
HIRING A GUIDE
Another smart strategy: contact the appropriate chambers of commerce for suggestions on local guides.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.